Rabbi David Kalender insists that Congregation Olam Tikvah has the “loudest sanctuary in town.”
It’s a point of pride for him and for Ita Paskind, the Fairfax synagogue’s assistant rabbi. Some of the noise is because congregants feel enough at home to chat with neighbors in the Conservative congregation’s wide-open sanctuary. “It’s also loud because everyone is singing,” Paskind says.
Olam Tikvah doesn’t have a cantor “by philosophy,” Kalender says, “because it can become a passive experience with a cantor.”
Instead, those noisy services are community led. “We all own this stuff,” says Kalender, who has been with the synagogue since 1998. “There are congregations that are driven by professional staff or by members. We don’t make that distinction.”
On any given Shabbat, a 65-year-old Torah reader might be followed by a recent bar or bat mitzvah. And with many members hailing from other states and countries, the melodies of prayers “will vary from week to week” – depending on who leads – “and I’m not talking about ‘Adon Olam,’ ” says Harold Belkowitz, Olam Tikvah’s president, referring to a popular Shabbat hymn that many believe can be sung with any melody.
The goal is for everyone to feel comfortable in synagogue – right from the beginning.
“If you’re not comfortable in a sanctuary when you’re 2 or 4 or 8, how dare we be surprised when you’re not comfortable at 24 or 48 or 85,” Kalender says.
The congregation is making plans for its 50th anniversary. Back in the mid-1960s, Jews were starting to “move west,” from Alexandria and Arlington, but still had ties to synagogues there, Kalender says.
But six families decided that “the schlep back to the old country for religious school is killing us,” he says. “As they talked, they realized they wanted more than a religious school annex. So they went into the phone book looking for Jews.”
And from demographic changes and the White Pages, Olam Tikvah – “World of Hope” – was formed in 1964.
Today, Olam Tikvah has 635 member families. When Kalender joined the synagogue 15 years ago he began trying to loosen up the place – starting with Saturday kiddush lunch after services.
“I took on the powers that be that we would not have gefilte fish balls and toothpicks anymore. That for the same cost and effort we could have bagels and cream cheese.”
He tells the story humorously. But it underlies his point that a congregation doesn’t have to do the same thing that it has always done. Especially when you get bagels thrown into the bargain. Kiddush attracts 225-240 people each week and has led to a growth in Shabbat service attendance, he says.
Olam Tikvah offers the full gamut of programs: There are 175 students enrolled in its religious school. There is a preschool, a high school program, a sisterhood, men’s club and a young professionals group.
And ABBA. This group is named for the Hebrew word for dad, not for the ’70s-era Swedish pop band. It’s in all capital letters for emphasis. Olam Tikvah’s ABBA was formed a half-dozen years ago to bring together fathers of preschool-age children.
“They were an underserved population in the synagogue,” Kalender says. “The moms tended to get to know each other, but the dads didn’t.
Over time, the kids grew up, but the fathers stayed in the group, joined at monthly events by newly minted dads, Rabbi Kalender says.
This year the synagogue started a teen band called “Al Hanissim,” after the “For the Miracles” prayer. The eight members have played at a number of holiday celebrations.
“This is their main Jewish interaction in their lives,” says Paskind, who came to Olam Tikvah three years ago. “It’s a gateway for them back into the synagogue.”
That’s been the experience of Noah Hochberg, a 10th-grader who plays tenor saxophone in the band. “It’s been nice to go there and play,” he says. “It keeps bringing me back.”
There are now three generations of members coming back to Olam Tikvah. In the sanctuary, open on all sides and washed by sunshine coming through skylights, “people with kids are sitting with people in their 80s,” Paskind says. Past presidents sit in “their” seats.
“Emotionally,” Kalender says, “we try to make space for all those people.”
[email protected] Twitter: @davidholzel